SPENT reviewed by Broken Frontier

Misery Loves Company

Broken Frontier    |    Beth Davies-Stofka    |    December 10, 2007

I banged into the neighborhood comics shop last night, announcing, "I'm looking for a comic book by Joe Matt. I don't know the title. All I know is that it starts with an S." This shop shelves alphabetically by title. The clerk's face glazed over, and so I said hopefully, "I guess I'll just go through all the S's, hoping I can find it?" "Yeah, that's about all we can do," he replied. He pretended to help me for a bit, and then went back to surfing at DC's website. I found Spent, pounced, and took it up to the desk. Holding it up so he could see the cover, I gleefully announced, in a loud, clear voice, "Isn't this great! This is exactly how I look at the end of the day!"

I'm a naughty, wicked woman. I know.

The thing is, I'm comfortable with sex. I really enjoy sexual expression. I'm not going to hate a graphic memoir because it's about a porn addict.

It's more likely that I'll hate a graphic memoir because it's a graphic memoir. Crumb, Pekar, Spiegelman, and Satrapi aside, I really believe that by default, comics artists should avoid writing graphic memoirs. (Come to think of it, we could do with less prose memoirs, too.) So I was prepared to loathe Spent.

Joe Matt was prepared for me to loathe it, too. In the cruel tirade he aims at himself as he paces his tiny dump of a room, he imagines what his disappointed readers will say. "He has no self-awareness or insight," they'll say…and they'll be right.

I read the strip from the back cover first. Two lovely young women see the book, misinterpret the title and the cover, and read it eagerly, expecting a memoir of a shopaholic. As the reality of the book's subject becomes clear, they are utterly disgusted, calling Matt "the world's biggest, ugliest loser." We then see Matt, having heard the whole exchange, dejected, crying a single, lonely tear.

I had a childlike surge of pity and vowed that I would not call Matt a loser. I stubbornly dug in to like this memoir. And I did. I liked it a lot. It has so much self-awareness and insight that you might find yourself begging for mercy.

Spent collects issues #11-14 of Matt's comic book series, Peepshow. And it is really quite brilliant, the whole thing working as a kind of inside joke that anyone can get. It is everything a peep show could be, burlesque, caricature, farce, lampoon, mockery, parody, satire, send-up, and travesty. The skin show is ongoing, but implied, Matt preferring to keep the reader focused on his inner dialogue about his obsessions, not the obsessions themselves.

The four issues of Peepshow appear here as four parts, each labeled with the location and year. Beyond those labels, the unbroken routine of 8 monochromatic panels per page gives almost nothing away, not the season, nor even the time of day. Spent isn't a story, either, but an exposé. A risky one, at that, since the self-image Matt presents is so intensely pathetic and unlikeable. He spends most of his time alone, yet talks out loud to himself constantly. He is mean and sometimes even cruel to women and cats, and exploits his friends for personal gain. He's a miser in love with money and yet he's lazy and does little to earn any. He lets his dreams of wealth, his addiction to porn, and his hatred of human imperfections drive him to become a vile wretch who would rather pee in a bottle than leave his room.

Joe Matt is the ultimate wanker, not only in the colloquial sense of complete self-absorption, but in that other way, too.

Spent would be easier to judge if I thought it were made up, but it's got that pesky label, "graphic memoir." It’s tempting to be like the girls on the back cover and judge Joe Matt the person. But the main figure in Spent is not Joe Matt. It is a carefully-constructed cartoon version of Joe Matt. To read Spent is not to judge the man, but the artist. And Joe Matt the artist is a riot. This book is really awful, very funny, and almost perfect.

Joe Matt's self-portrayal is masterfully conceived and utterly efficient. He doesn't allow even one stray detail to threaten to contradict his self-portrait. He is a totally unsympathetic and uninteresting loser. In the pages of Spent, no more is said than is absolutely necessary to completely alienate you from him. And he never attempts to justify himself to you. He ensures that you see him, arguing with his friends, coping with his dread, crying in his loneliness, screaming at his neighbor, or throwing away a cat, with the same loathing and disgust with which he views himself.

One of the funniest scenes in the book is the one where Matt spends hours dubbing pornography from one VHS tape to another, obsessively breaking favorite scenes down into second-long increments and synchronizing VCRs so that only his favorite scenes in the films are copied. He edits away any bit he doesn't like, a pan here, a close-up of a face there, until he has a perfect pornographic experience that he can visit over and over and over again. His pursuit of the perfect sexual experience prevents him from experiencing actual women, and this obsession sucks the life from his existence. Nothing ever changes. He doesn't change, his room doesn't change, and so the colors and shapes of his panels don't change.

There is no actual pornography in this book, young man. Nothing titillating, stimulating, or erotic could ever possibly appear on the pages of this miserable memoir of a miserable guy.

As a shtick, it's different. Even Dangerfield expected us to respect him. The Joe Matt of Spent hates himself, and insists that we join him. But let's hope he never produces another graphic memoir. To repeat this gem would be to dilute it. I didn’t loathe Spent. I loathe Joe Matt. How could he top that?

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